My palms are sweaty. My heart is racing. I check the lyrics one more time. I think I am going to throw up with nervousness! I refrain from cheering for other singers, for I fear going hoarse. Am I ready? No…maybe I need another shot of Jack ‘n Coke. I run to the bar, get a drink—Jack, Coke (no ice), and empty the glass in a jiffy. I feel the confidence rise in me.
I shall get back on stage—after 12 long years. My last performance was a disaster. The singer before me just nails it and the crowd applauds. They call out my name; I wish the earth would split apart so I hide in it.
Music, a combination of seven simple tones. Background for some, concentration enhancer for some, white noise for some, sleeping pills for some, pastime for some, bread and butter for some, penance for some, and passion for me.
Music is an integral part of Indian movies and like billions of other Indians, I took a liking to them. I purchased music tapes, learnt the lyrics and sang them with ease. Songs sung by legendary singers like Kishore Kumar, Yesudas and Mohammed Rafi were my favourites. I used to think music was all about the singer till one fine morning, in the summer of 1992, I heard A R Rahman—the first Asian to win two Oscars in the same year.
Rahman, often called the “Mozart of Madras”, transformed music and music technology in India. Songs became less about the singer and more about the rhythm, beats and the total package.
Around the same time, my father gifted me a synthesizer with which I started making music. I sat with the song, lyrics, and beats already playing in my head, and, inspired by Rahman, made my own songs. His work motivated me as I began to be his musical shadow. Although I never learnt how to notate music the traditional way, I created my own script with the help of alphabets stuck to the keys. When Hindus and Muslims clashed in India after a mosque was demolished by extremists, I composed a song that blended a Hindu hymn with an Islamic prayer. Such was the inspiration.
By the time I left home for university in 1997, I had managed to get through the ultra-competitive Indian schooling system, and won prizes for singing, acting, debates and dancing (I highly recommend you don’t judge me by the way I look and move today). Most importantly, I had over 20 songs in my sound bank, which was made of songs recorded at home using a stereo and an amateur’s keyboard. My sound box had four cassettes and a notebook with notations in my own language.
From trying to fit in to adjusting with roommates and surviving ragging, college was tiresome. Again, music came to my rescue. I sang for drunk seniors sometimes and for parties where everyone drank. Half way through the first year, I got myself a set of computer speakers and attached a Walkman to it. This served as our music station for the remainder of the course. That’s when my roomie introduced us to Rock. Until then, my benchmark of rock music was Bryan Adams’ Summer of 69. The world of Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Guns ‘n Roses, Eminem, and most of all Queen, among many, showed up. It took a few months to start catching on to their styles, lyrics and accents. I now had elements of Rock in some of my songs. I later went for music lessons when my friends gifted me a harmonica, one of the hardest instruments to play.
As I left college and dived into the realities of life, my sound bank had grown to seven cassettes. However, the world I dived into was different. It was a world that translated every talent or skill into commercial success, and this seemed to be its sole purpose. When I sang a song, people would clap and tell me I should sing for movies and get rich. When someone painted, they would say he should sell the painting. It surprised me that an artist could never be an artist for the sake of being one.
Six months of unemployment and the need to be independent took me away from music. My living conditions, infrastructure and personal economy did not support recording and playback anymore. Finally, I too succumbed and started to make money out of my skills. My degree never landed me a job but my ability to speak well did. I became John Taylor, selling telecom products to American customers. Like the many across Bengaluru, I worked at night and slept during the day. It was a hard life, working double shifts to meet sales targets while trying to remember my songs and having a girlfriend. It took a toll on my music. I practically stopped singing for over a year.
One weekend, during the time that I was going through a rather painful breakup, I played some of the cassettes from my sound box. I heard the first cassette, and then the rest. I could remember only three of the thirty odd songs. I took a break, had a couple of vodka shots and tried again, but to no avail. Three hours later and totally frustrated, I flung the cassettes away. The realization that it needed commitment to be an artist began to dawn on me. Rahman isn’t Rahman because music flows out of him. Months of hard work give way to half an hour of great music. I did not have the guts to follow Rahman’s path. There was no sense in preserving my sound box.
Allowing myself to drift into a banal world, I moved from one day to another, one job to another, until I finally landed a set of colleagues who loved to play music and needed a singer. My sound box was long gone and I was back to singing the golden melodies I once used to sing, only now for a band at work. We played in shows and had the audience swooning to our music. With all modesty, I must tell you that I even had a couple of chirpy girls asking to marry me. However, I was out of the band when I chose another job.
A new job, new life and the various new wants in life took me far away from performing for the next 12 years. I stayed connected to music through the million melodies around the world and, of course, Rahman. With each passing year, as another dream died, I somehow found the courage to enroll and represent my team in a contest a few months ago. I had to sing in a public place—a casino—with a live band, and compete with some of the most talented singers in the world—Filipinos.
And that’s how I had sweaty palms and a racing heart. Fabulous singers set the standards high but three shots of Jack ‘n Coke made me feel invincible. I chose to sing Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’. After paying mental respects to the great Freddie Mercury, I walked up to the mic with a couple of my colleagues, who helped me with the chorus. The crowd went crazy, and the music was loud and I’d like to think….we rocked!